Jeremy Renner, the 39-year-old star of The Hurt Locker, isn't just a sleeper nominee for best actor at the Oscars; he's also very sleepy. But it's not his fault. Renner talked to us on the afternoon of his Academy Award nomination, and he hardly got any shut-eye the night before—he was jet-lagged and nervous and had to get up early to be on the Today show. "I'm beat down, dude," he says, slumped over in the lobby of his downtown Manhattan hotel. "I had a couple whiskys to put me down. Then somebody called and I couldn't get back to sleep." You can't blame the guy for being worn out. Although he's acted all his life, The Hurt Locker—Kathryn Bigelow's critically adored Iraq War drama—catapulted Renner into the spotlight for playing the film's bomb-detonating hero, Sgt. William James. Renner spoke to NEWSWEEK about his life as an actor so far. Excerpts:
Setoodeh: What was your first job as an actor?
Renner: There are a couple different definitions of that. I remember my first taped gig as an actor was at a police academy. I remember being in the theater department, and they were looking for actors to reenact crimes, or be a rape victim—or whatever it might be—for these police cadets to be trained. I got $50 a day to beat up cops and be unruly. That was my first paid job as an actor. I was like, "Cool, I got $50." My first job job was in L.A. It was a movie called National Lampoon's Senior Trip. It was pretty awesome because it fulfilled the three reasons why I went to L.A. To be in a movie, to be in a movie that was big enough to play in my small hometown, Modesto [Calif.], and to be in a part large enough so I didn't have to tell you I'm the guy in the red shirt waving.
How old were you?
I think I was 24 or 25.
Have you been acting consistently since then?
I started when I was 19. I discovered it as a criminology and computer-science major. I took this acting class as an elective at Modesto Junior College, and I switched to a theater major. I never finished, but that was the idea. I never looked back.
Did you ever think about quitting acting?
Not even for a moment?
Never. It's not about anybody else. It's me. It's that determination and persistence and belief in oneself. When you come up against an obstacle, what do you do? Keep being persistent. I started doing plays again, whatever it took. I did whatever makes me happy. I lived by the candlelight for two years because I couldn't afford power. It was nice and romantic at the time, but if you can't afford power you're pretty broke. You endure it. The sacrifices are you can't have a family, you can't do any of that. I was willing to do it.
You didn't have any power? How did you watch TV?
I don't watch TV. I had a guitar for entertainment or a piano.
How did Bigelow find you?
I found out later, she saw this movie called Dahmer. Mark Boal, the writer, wasn't convinced. "I don't see why you see this guy as James." She said, "Don't look at the role, look at how he played the role. There's nothing likable about Jeffrey Dahmer, but he made him likable." Will James is not a likable guy on paper.
Did you have to audition for her?
No. I talked to her on the phone for a couple hours after I read it. It was awesome. We saw eye to eye straight away. We worked well together. It's the role of a lifetime. I'm so glad that she asked me to do it.
Do you think it's crazy that a woman has never won the Oscar for best director before?
I think it's absurd.
I know she gets that question a lot, and she must be tired of it.
Obviously it will mean a lot for her to win, but not because she's a woman. Her being a woman has no bearing on her as a director. It will mean a lot to other women. It's just pretty awesome that she can break a glass ceiling and maybe open the doors for more women. If I was a betting man, it is her time. A lot of this awards stuff is timing. If a woman is ever going to win, no woman is more deserving.
How heavy was the suit you wear in this movie?
Five to 100 pounds, depending on how much gear you have on you.
Did you have to go to special training?
I did intense bomb-suit training for like a week on base in California, then learned how to build bombs, then learned how to render them safe and blow a bunch of stuff up. And then, more importantly, got to talk to the guys off base, and they got to hang out at my house. They were really generous with their time and knowledge. I remember playing with blasting caps—I can't believe I'm playing with this stuff. But I felt pretty safe. They taught me really well.
This movie had a strange trajectory. It was released during the summer, had some of the best reviews of the year, and then only made $12.6 million at the box office. Do you think it's because of the subject matter—the Iraq War?
I don't know. It's hard to say. We didn't have a lot of screens to make a whole lot of money. I understand the hesitance for any distributor to want to throw it out on 2,000 screens—that's just not going to happen. We were hoping for 1,500. I think we got like 500. In reflection, would we have done it differently? Maybe. But it's a massive victory that we were on screens anyway, and the DVD is going bananas. The awareness of it now is through the roof.
Have you heard from people in the military about what they thought of this film?
That's where this whole thing really shifted for me. That was going to be our toughest audience, and that's who we wanted to honor. It was very nerve-racking to do screenings for them. The reception has been very positive. It's hard for me to explain my experience shooting the movie to my parents when I came home—or my girlfriend at the time. It was too hard to explain, and I was just shooting a movie. Imagine a guy who does it, and how it tears up their life at home.
Who is the first person who called after you found out you were nominated for an Oscar?
I talked to my mom. She was the only person. She was with my entire family in Modesto. They were all up early making waffles. They were screaming and jumping. Then I asked her what she was doing—if she wanted to be my date.
What will she wear?
She doesn't know. She said, "All right, I'm not going to eat these waffles now. I'm going to go to the gym." She got all hysterical.
What's next for you?
A nice, long nap.